Zooming In: A Look Back, a Glance Forward

Zooming In: A Look Back, a Glance Forward

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I’ve been in the photo biz for almost 40 years (creak!) and I’ve never seen so many negative factors hit us all at once. Some are self-inflicted; others are consequences of Mother Nature. But true to form, the photo-imaging industry will persevere.

Here in America, we reflexively think “Kodak” when we think photography. Alas our friends in Rochester seem to be running out of money and time. And, from current visits to HP’s website and to Amazon.com it seems that HP has all but given up on the camera business, notwithstanding its supposed reentry a couple of years back.

Whilst Kodak struggles to survive, hitherto healthy camera makers such as Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, et al, suddenly find themselves the victims of flooding in Thailand (of all places!) that has forced temporary factory closures and supply-chain nightmares.

Some Perspective

Let’s go back to a simple analysis of how the camera business got to where it is today. Apart from the aberrations of film formats such as 126, 110 and APS (ah, those secret APS conferences a decade and a half ago; the first one cost 10 million yen per head to attend. Am I remembering right? Did they really expect to be able to coat APS film with a transparent magnetic layer that would allow digital image information to overlay the chemical image, or did I dream that?), the mainstay of our industry was 35mm film. But the size and shape of the film canister, its film path and its take-up spool dictated the basic size and shape of a typical 35mm camera. See one and you all but saw them all.

The transition to digital has thrown those constraints out the window, and now we are confronted with myriad sizes and shapes, some unrecognizable to any Rip van Winkle awakening from a slumber as short at even 20 years. Modern digicams can be incredibly thin, even when housing zoom lenses. Even a 16x zoom lens can get you a camera less than an inch thick. Digital zooming has not really caught on big-time, but if the pixel count increases in sensors, it might become more palatable. My favorite camera is a megazoom (bridge) camera, but the capable device is too bulky for me to cart around on a regular basis.

In 2004 I almost accidentally met the then CEO of MicroVision, whose company was developing a tiny laser-driven eye-level EVF (electronic viewfinder) with various industrial applications. After chatting and analyzing its potential, I came up with a proposal for a mirrorless, interchangeable-lens digicam using a rear LCD and a MicroVision EVF. I took it to photokina 2004 and showed it to several majors (such as Samsung, Leica, Kodak, Sigma, etc.), but MicroVision took the technology into microprojectors, and the camera EVF idea died.

Not so the camera idea itself, which years later spawned the whole ILC (interchangeable-lens compact) camera revolution that is now the hottest segment of the industry. Did I patent the idea? Heck no! Sheesh!

I am surprised so many ILCs are on offer with only rear LCDs, and I am thrilled to see such industry stalwarts as Fujifilm and Sony offering ILC cameras with eye-level EVFs. Bravo! Every ILC should have an EVF, says me! Another Bravo to Fujifilm and to Leica for reinventing the classic camera whilst bringing it into the 21st century.

Micro but Immense
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the immense contribution that the microchip has made to our products. This was not always so. I was the product maven at Vivitar in its heyday, when Minolta released the Maxxum 7000 autofocus SLR. Its body “talked” to its lenses and flashguns using electrical signals created and read by microchips. Our flash supplier (West Electric, part of Matsushita/Panasonic) was unable to supply AF guns to us (our 273 and 285 guns ruled the roost until then), and our lens suppliers were slow to back-engineer for AF lenses; we almost croaked.

Nowadays, microchips allow for immense creativity in software, so that tiny cameras built into smartphones are taking more images that do regular cameras. Check the stats on the Flickr website if you need proof. The camera in the Apple iPhone 4S is getting rave reviews; it has an 8MP sensor and a good, fast (but non-zoom) lens. And it’s backed up by myriad apps that allow users to manipulate and improve their captured images. This open-ended approach to photography is lapped up by the cameraphone makers but all but ignored by most camera makers, at their peril.

Intriguingly, camcorders continue to proliferate. On Amazon you can even buy lots of Flip models despite the fact that Cisco swallowed the Flip company and stopped making them. Kodak and Sony, in particular, are making very successful efforts to plug the gap in the pocket video camera market left by Flip’s flip out.

Meanwhile there is one segment that appears to me to be booming: sports/action camcorders. Several years ago I helped Nick Woodman on an earlier project, but with my usual impeccable timing I baled out before he hit the big time with his GoPro camera line. He recently got $24 million in funding and now does lots of TV advertising. Just about every race car I see on TV seems to have a GoPro camera attached. Lusting after that market segment are Contour and the mysteriously unreachable ReplayXD company that operates not 10 miles from my house and ignores all of my attempts to engage them in social intercourse.

Back to projectors. Microprojectors are getting so small that smartphones can now incorporate them, albeit with negative impact on battery life (doh). On the professional image-capture front, the lead seems to be passing to RED, but Arri and Panavision are fighting back.

On the business front, who of us cannot be fascinated by the infighting surrounding Olympus? I have worked for several Chinese firms over the years and purchased from many Japanese and Korean ones. One thing I learned early on was that different cultures operate in different ways and have different priorities than we do in the West, and you can ignore those at your peril.

So where are we heading in 2012? It seems to me that ILCs will be hot, as will sports/action cameras. The pixel wars might be over (unless digital zooming grows), but cameraphones will be what our Japanese friends called single-use cameras—TPO cameras (time/place/opportunity). As they say, the best camera is the one you have with you when you need it.

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